In very difficult, blustery, conditions, Team New Zealand dismasted in Race Four of the America's Cup - to many seasoned Cup observers, its chances of a successful defence in the XXXIst Match appeared to tumble down with the rig.
It was a tough fourth race of the series, with rain squalls bringing strong gusts and sharp, choppy seas to the Hauraki Gulf.
On the second beat, after a strong squall had passed over the two boats, Team New Zealand appeared to pound through three particularly big waves. As the bow came down off the third wave, the mast snapped between the first and second spreader after what appeared to be a shroud or spreader failure. None of the crew members were hurt.
"It's possible it's the top of the V2 (shroud), which is the main, load-bearing outside rigging element, but until we get a chance to really look at the damage, we'd just be guessing," said syndicate head Tom Schnackenberg moments after the disaster. "When the boat pitches forward that increases the shock loading and the boat was definitely bouncing over a couple of waves there and that was obviously the thing that pushed it."
The Swiss Alinghi Team had been leading for the entire race, after skipper Russell Coutts executed a perfect time on distance start to hit the starting line just as the gun fired. Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker started slightly behind and to weather, and at the first cross, five minutes up the beat, Alinghi was able to tack ahead in a strong lee bow position.
The Alinghi lead was never threatened and when Team New Zealand dismasted, Coutts and his team sailed the rest of the course to grab a 4 - 0 lead in the XXXIst America's Cup Match.
For Alinghi skipper Russell Coutts, his 13th consecutive America's Cup win puts his team on match point in the XXXIst America's Cup Match. Coutts is now just one victory away from capturing his third consecutive America's Cup, and breaking Dennis Conner's record for America's Cup race victories.
Under the Match Conditions for the America's Cup, Team New Zealand cannot ask for a lay day to effect repairs.
"We'll swap masts with NZL-81, that's a very nice rig, and we'll be ready to race tomorrow," Schnackenberg promised.
Race Five is scheduled to start at 13:15 on Saturday afternoon.
31ST AMERICA'S CUP MATCH
Alinghi (SUI-64) wins, Team New Zealand (NZL-82) retires
Alinghi leads Team New Zealand in the best-of-nine series, 4 - 0.
Team New Zealand was slightly late entering the start box on the starboard end. Both yachts sailed deep into the box, neither one wanting to engage, and then going for a time and distance run into the line.
Russell Coutts, at the helm of Alinghi, hit the line exactly at the gun, with Team New Zealand about half a boatlength behind and to windward.
From then on, Team New Zealand was playing catch-up all the time, rounding
the first windward mark 8 seconds behind and the first leeward mark 17 seconds in arrears.
First signs of drama came on the downwind run as Team New Zealand, driving through the quarter wave of Alinghi, took a lot of water over the bow and down the forward hatch.
For most of the second beat, Team New Zealand appeared to struggle to control its sailplan, with much of its mainsail backwinding, on a heavily pre-bent mast.
With a squall crossing the course and winds of up to 26 knots up the second beat, Team New Zealand ploughed into three large waves. As the bow buried into the third wave, the rig broke just above the first spreader and the crew went from racing mode to survival mode.
For the second time in this Match, Alinghi were left to sail around the course on its own, taking their score to 4-0 and needing just one more win to take the America's Cup to Switzerland.